Racism against black & brown refugees fleeing Ukraine

By Phemelo Motseokae (WASP — our sister organisation in South Africa)

The world is standing on its toes, watching in horror at the unfolding events in Ukraine. At the time of writing, over 1.2 million people have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries like Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and other surrounding countries. These groups are made up of Ukrainian citizens, but also many immigrants and international students from many different countries, including India, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Turkmenistan.

Right at the borders of Poland, officials are prioritising Ukrainian refugees before “other” refugees, isolating people by race to decide who goes through the border. This is in line with official European Union policy, to offer protection only to Ukrainian citizens and those living permanently in the country. In the past week, videos1 of people of colour being denied entry onto buses have gone viral, with some saying they were taken out of the bus by white Ukrainians saying it’s their government and they have the right to be on the bus first. African and Indian students have been left stranded at train stations; mothers with infants, young children and students have been left in cold sub-zero temperatures to fend for themselves.

Groups of brown and black people who decided to flee the situation in Poland on foot, walking as much as 10 hours, met the same fate at Hungarian borders — exclusion because they are black/brown. Desperation is growing and they are stuck in limbo as money, food and medical supplies are running out and they are in need of shelter.

On top of this, media reporting has fuelled the fire with disgusting racist remarks about refugees and the war. For example, an NBC correspondent contrasting previous refugee crises with the “Christian” and “white” refugees from Ukraine. Or the shocking statement from an Al Jazeera reporter, “What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East…or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to”.

Capitalism unable to address the humanitarian crisis

At the start of the pandemic, wealthy western countries were able to buy vaccines quickly and often in huge quantities while poorer countries in the neo-colonial world were left behind as they were unable to compete financially. Vaccines were distributed along class lines on a global scale. Countries in the neo-colonial world and other poor countries were forced to the back of the line in vaccination efforts for a long period, adding to the challenges that have been imposed by years of imperialism and colonialism. This crisis is yet another deadly exposition of how wealthy nations and multinational pharmaceutical companies treat the poor and their contempt for workers and the oppressed — class war on open display.

Most African and Indian students are in Ukraine to get university degrees and for the prospect of jobs, but are being treated as economic migrants at the borders — rather than refugees, displaced by the same war as white Ukranians. It is the norm for western countries to treat refugees like animals. This time, however, mixed with white European refugees in the same conflict, the discrimination based on skin color, divisive patriotism and the fictional “threat” to European “nations” is laid bare for all to see.

Despite the growing humanitarian crisis, nation states are not doing enough to fund relief efforts such as improving transportation and providing shelter for refugees. Instead, many are using the crisis to bolster military budgets and spending 100s of billions of euros on weapons and military equipment. Inevitably, racist tendencies are rising under these harsh conditions as people are forced to compete in order to reach safety. In a similar way, xenophobic tensions are rising in South Africa due to the poverty and deplorable conditions facing the working class.

European states completely neglected the refugee crisis for weeks in 2015 with people dying from hunger and dehydration at their borders. If it wasn’t for the enormous effort of ordinary volunteers, the refugees in Austria would’ve faced an absolute tragedy, similar to the dire conditions in Hungary. Governments’ role in fuelling racism through racist immigration policies cannot hide itself any longer. Even this time around, without government intervention, volunteers and NGOs are lending a helping hand to get as many people to safety and provide shelters for incoming refugees and ordinary people are gathering funds to rescue African refugees.

The Nigerian and Ghananian governments only began rescue plans, taking the lead from NGOs and individuals, only after criticism from media and celebrities. This cowardly attitude is a prominent feature in African capitalist politicians whose countries are heavily dependent on foreign investments, or more correctly, rip-offs — through exploitative trade deals, poverty wages from multinational companies and predatory loans.

War in Ukraine has far-reaching implications

The current war in Ukraine is the culmination of decades of imperialist competition for control. NATO has continued its economic and military advance eastward into Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union. Nationalism is a key factor for military mobilization for both Russia and Ukraine. Other European countries are looking to defend their own national interests as the conflict intensifies. However, it is working class people who suffer and die the most during imperialist power contests.

In South Africa, the ANC government is sitting on the fence, arguing that countries must provide aid and empathy to everyone, with empty calls for “diplomatic” resolutions to the conflict. Their hesitancy to speak out explicitly against Russia has to do with economic ties. Historically, the USSR supported the fight against apartheid, and today South Africa is a member of BRICS — an ‘informal’ economic and political alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. During the negotiations at the end of apartheid, the same ANC allowed the signing of agreements with western neoliberal entities, like the IMF, World Bank and the GATT (precursor to WTO). Nonetheless, the economic impacts of the conflict will be felt on a global scale and no matter which “side” the ANC government chooses — and it will increasingly be pressured to take one or the other — the global working class stands to lose.

People are already connecting the war in Ukraine as a big driver for record-high fuel hikes and increases in food prices in South Africa. For consumers who are barely surviving, price hikes are a devastating blow. African countries depending on grain imports will also feel the war. It is difficult to say if this will result in surging prices and the scramble for Africa and other neo-colonial world markets amidst the trade disruption in Russia and Ukraine or if this disruption could result in shortages for local populations. What is clear, however, is that the ANC, along with other BRICS governments, have shown their disdain for working-class populations of their own countries. They will take the side of imperialist warmongers on both sides of this Cold War before showing any solidarity with the only real force that can bring this war to an end — the working-class masses of Russia and Ukraine.

The economic repercussions of this war will leave infrastructure and land devastated, affecting food security in Ukraine, Russia as well as the rest of the world. Millions of people are already displaced from their homes and condemned to poverty. While it is ultimately the working class that will need to rebuild what this war destroys, it will at the same time need to guard against the ruling class using the war to cut social services and further divisions. There is no doubt that governments involved will use this war to justify austerity measures and increases in military budgets, as we already see in countries like Germany. At the same time, a fresh refugee crisis provides new faces for the European ruling class to scapegoat the failures inherent in capitalism.

Working class unity — Key to combating Racism and war

The ever-rising anti-immigration sentiment of Europe in the past years has been fuelled by increasing racism and the growth of far-right and fascist parties. It reflects the incapacity of governments and the EU to deal with the growing capitalist crisis and a refugee crisis stemming from wars in the Middle East and Africa endorsed by western governments. Elites on both sides are relying on nationalism to boost war efforts, forcefully conscripting young men to fight and die for capitalist and imperialist warlords. Even in elections, right populist parties are always looking to grow their bases, making nationalist and racist appeals to put ‘Europeans’ first, and scapegoating refugees for declining jobs and rising standards of living. These are typical divide and rule tactics to distract the working class from drawing the conclusion that it’s the capitalist system itself that creates these conditions — and that a world is possible where we do not have to fight with the most oppressed and vulnerable over crumbs falling from the boss’s mouth.

In 2015, Europe’s influx of refugees fleeing the war in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan reached close to one million. Sweden, Austria, Belarus began rolling out border controls and identity controls. This stoked the irrational fear that especially black and brown refugees pose a threat to their “nations”. Although these European nations have the wealth and resources to provide stable living conditions, jobs and healthcare to all, including refugees, the governments of these nations make the conscious choice to protect the profits of the rich, and pit the needs of the refugees against the rest of the working class and poor. However, taking in refugees is only the first step, it does not guarantee jobs, access to healthcare and homes for those who will be stranded for, God knows how long this conflict is going to last.

When more than 1,000 refugees in Hungary marched out of Budapest to the Austrian border in 2014, in protest at the Hungarian government’s refusal to provide trains to Austria and Germany, that decision was reversed overnight and buses were provided by the authorities to take the exhausted refugees to the border. Trade Unions can be a mighty force against right-wing government attacks. We can follow from the example of demonstrations in Belgium in 2014 when citizens and immigrants went on a general strike against austerity measures. The movement involved illegal workers and immigrants exploited by their bosses.

Fighting racism and for solidarity with refugees has been a major field of WASP’s (and ISA) work. Five years ago we played an instrumental role in Hong Kong in establishing a refugee union with about 2000 members. In Europe, our comrades have organised campaigns against deportations and racism in many countries. In South Africa, WASP has been standing in solidarity with community organisations and migrants facing and fighting against xenophobia.

A united working class movement against war and imperialism is the only way out of this mess, including supporting the protests against the war in Russia, as well as the organised withdrawal of labour by workers, against transporting weapons and military equipment. A shining example was seen on the 3rd of March when dock workers in the UK refused to offload a gas tanker from Russia, since the UK has been spending billions in Russian gas that can now be used by Putin to fund the war in Ukraine. Students and civil society should join in solidarity actions against this war.

Divisions among the working class are the bedrock of capitalism, and the ruling class is already using this war to roll back decades of hard won gains for the working class. From South Africa to Sweden, from the USA to the UK, from China to Chile, the working class must be organised independently from the capitalist class that seeks to exploit us for profit — through low wages, austerity measures, and even war. As Fred Hampton said, we will not fight racism with racism, nor capitalism with black capitalism. Real permanent change for peace and equality beyond nationalist, racist, sexist lines requires the complete reorganisation of society — that is, building a movement of real working-class solidarity on a socialist program.

The threat of nuclear warfare poses an existential threat to humanity. We demand that Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine to their barracks — we have no illusions in any imperialist entities ending this war. We stress that this conflict is not in the interest of the working class. Additionally, we stress that mass working-class resistance particularly in Russia can end this conflict. We strongly condemn the racist actions seen on Ukraine’s borders against Africans and Asians just as we condemn the sacrificing of working-class lives for imperial gain.

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